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September 6, 2016

5 Min Read
Average vehicle could incorporate 350 kg of plastics by 2020

Driven by increasingly stringent government regulations to meet fuel efficiency standards and reduce carbon emissions, by 2020, the average car will incorporate nearly 350 kilograms of plastics, up from 200 kilograms in 2014, according to chemical researchers at IHS Markit (London).

More plastics on the way in autos

In the US, for example, the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards mandate that carmakers’ passenger vehicle fleets average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, and according to estimates from IHS Markit, fuel economy must be improved by approximately 50 percent across the passenger vehicle fleet. Increasingly, automakers are employing newer-generation plastics and plastics composites to meet those newer efficiency standards, according to IHS Markit.

For the most part, mainstream automakers are initially employing traditional metalworking approaches to weight reduction, as these offer a cost-effective application of known competencies, secure supply chains and most importantly, existing capital equipment. However, said IHS Markit, automakers are increasingly employing more novel approaches, such as adopting more plastics and next-generation composites into automotive design, particularly for larger vehicle applications.

“While metal and metal alloys are still critical to automotive design, automakers are finding innovative ways to leverage plastics and composites into their designs to help reduce vehicle weight and improve efficiency,” said Casey Selecman, senior manager of automotive advisory services at IHS Markit. “As efficiency and carbon reduction regulations increase globally, we at IHS Markit expect the use of plastics will only increase as the materials improve and production costs are reduced.”

According to the automotive researchers at IHS Markit, cars represent a fast-growing market for the chemicals industry, with global car production expected to rise in the coming years, to more than 110 million units in 2025, up from an estimated 88.7 million in 2015. Much of the growth will come from the fast-expanding Chinese market.

Selecman, along with other analysts from IHS Markit and industry leaders and plastics manufacturers including Brian Baleno, global automotive business development manager for Solvay Specialty Chemicals, will discuss the expanding use of plastics and composites in automotive design at the upcoming GPS 2016: The Global Plastics Summit, Sept. 28-30, in Chicago. The event, which is hosted by IHS Markit and SPI, will welcome global plastics producers from nearly 200 companies, representing more than 15 countries.

Selecman said the uses of advanced plastics and composites also give automotive designers a freedom of expression that would be impossible with conventional metals, such as steel and aluminum. “Beyond the practical advantages of using plastics and composites, these materials can greatly enhance the design and aesthetic appeal of cars, and while performance, structural strength and safety are key purchase considerations, buyers also look for designs that appeal to the head and the heart.”

The uses for these materials range from electronic components, through to body panels, lift-gates, seatbacks, center consoles, interior trim, and even underhood applications. The plastics consumed for automotive manufacturing are often compounded with fiberglass and additives to improve mechanical properties and stability.

The use of carbon fibers and polymer matrix composites enable car-body weight-reductions of an estimated 25 percent to 70 percent, and chemical analysts at IHS Markit expect the market for carbon fiber in automotive manufacturing to nearly double in the next few years.

Selecman said that, even with all the recent press regarding the latest applications of light-weighting technologies, “there is still a huge opportunity for automotive light-weighting on the horizon—literally tons of weight yet to be removed from vehicle designs using material substitutions such as innovative plastics composites and carbon fiber technologies. Closures, which are doors, lift-gates and hoods, are the easiest options to significantly reduce vehicle weight, and at IHS Markit, we see significant opportunities for those as well as non-critical structures such as seats, instrument panels, and under the hood for engine cradles, pans, covers, and so on.”

The most obvious recent example of a major light-weighting success, he said, is from Ford, which removed approximately 700 pounds in weight from the F-150 in the last redesign, a feat, Selecman said, that was achieved largely through a material substitution in the body and bed. This was primarily realized through switching from steel to aluminum.

Selecman also mentions extensive use carbon fiber for body panels in Chevrolet Corvette, a carbon fiber-reinforced oil pan in Ford’s 6-7-liter Scorpion Diesel truck engine, and carbon fiber bodies and structures in the BMW 7 series and Alfa Romeo 4C examples of increased use of plastics in recent times.

“At IHS Markit, we expect usage of carbon fiber in automotive manufacturing could double from 2015 to 2020,” said Michael Malveda, lead author of the newly published report from IHS Markit, entitled IHS Chemical Carbon Fibers, Chemical Economics Handbook. “Carbon fiber enables vehicles to be made lighter and more fuel efficient, but cost is still an issue. Currently, carbon fiber-reinforced composites are found in limited sports or specialty cars, as well as growing applications in automotive fuel cell technologies, compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles, and electric vehicles. We expect the use of carbon fiber composites in mainstream cars and trucks to increase, but improvements will need to be made in carbon fiber processing technology to make it more cost effective for mass-produced automobiles.”

“Carbon fiber is still relatively costly to use in mass market vehicles, and manufacturing time/processing technology will still need to be improved,” says Malveda. “Carbon fibers are being used in the Corvette Stingray and the BMW i3 electric vehicles – but those uses are likely considered more as sports or specialty cars, than mass produced vehicles. However, there have been partnerships recently between large auto manufacturers and carbon fiber producers such as Ford and DowAska that may lead to more mainstream use in the future,” he notes.

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